Education is one of our best weapons against racism and hate

Crowd gathers at Jack Poole plaza for the vigil Saturday night.| Photo by Laura R. Copes.

This past weekend people from coast to coast braved the cold to hold vigils and rallies in response to the horrific massacre carried out by a white supremacist at a mosque in Quebec City. More than 40 cities and towns across Canada held actions to mourn and to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters across the country.

In Vancouver, several vigils took place on a snowy Saturday evening, culminating in a large gathering at Jack Poole Plaza where city staff lit up the old Olympic cauldron for the occasion.

Listening to the parade of speakers at the vigil held outside the Vancouver Art Gallery I was struck by the power and, despite the grimness of the occasion, the spirit of resolve and even joy that comes with physically assembling alongside our neighbours and fellow citizens. The vigils were both mournful and restorative; the tens of thousands who participated across Canada no doubt went home with renewed determination to stand against hate and anti-Muslim bigotry.

One speaker, an imam from a Vancouver mosque, made an essential point: The killer had hated what he did not know; he had attacked and massacre those he did not understand. This struck me as a remarkably forgiving interpretation of the mass murder committed by someone who apparently held white supremacist ideas and admired the likes of Marine Le Pen and the new occupant of the White House. The point of the imam’s remark, however, is crucial in these dangerous times we are living: the road to fascism and all forms of violent extremism is paved with ignorance.

The Quebec shooting, of course, came just days after an executive order from President Trump that bans Syrian refugees as well as residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Trump, whose every utterance showcases a spectacular and almost unfathomable crudity and ignorance, has turned the most powerful political office in the world into a megaphone for misinformation and fearmongering. In defence of his travel ban targeting Muslims, which has already been ruled unconstitutional by various federal judges, Trump and his spokespeople churn out a steady stream of fiction and more or less subtle bigotry.

In this political climate, characterized as it is by hatred disseminated in real time across social media, it’s hard to shake the feeling of anxiety bordering on existential dread. It might seem like the only way to overcome such feelings is to retreat from the world. But even if that provided a temporary, personal relief, it would never be justified to surrender to bigotry.

A better remedy is to find more reasons to assemble with our neighbours and our communities. It shouldn’t always take a tragedy of the scale of Quebec to bring us together and engage in multifaith ceremonies and exchange.

And, as the speaker at the vigil implied, studying and learning is crucial to preventing the spread of racist ideas and organizations. Our public schools already play a key role in developing in our children values like pluralism and the celebration of diversity. But the joys and responsibilities of education shouldn’t end when our schooling is over. Perhaps the most effective thing we can do in the long-run to stop the Trumps of the world is to read more widely and seriously.

To that end I’m resolving to close my Twitter tab a little earlier each night, in order to read more books.

The novel I’m reading right now, The Man Who Loved Dogs, is a Russian-style epic by Cuban author Leonardo Padura, chronicling the exile years of revolutionary Leon Trotsky as well as the life of the Spanish Communist who would eventually assassinate him in Mexico. The book captures the double-horror of the 1930s, with the once-powerful Trotsky unable to find safe refuge let alone stem the murderous rise of both Stalinism and then Nazism. On the non-fiction front I’ve been re-reading the late great Carl Sagan, a popularizer of science and astronomy sans pareil, and dipping into a new study of the Kurdish resistance movements in Syria, who are bravely fighting off ISIS and other murderous foes while forging a society that prioritizes gender-equality and greater local democracy.

I find this extra reading is already helping my sense of perspective. Things are frightening now, but people in other lands and in other times have lived and struggle through much worse. Exchanging browsing social media feeds for turning pages of physical books has started to relieve my Trump-era omnipresent feeling of anxiety.

After Quebec we must be ever-vigilant against racist extremists. This will of course require physical mobilizations and actions to defend Muslims and all minorities.

But these dangerous times also demand that we raise our game when it comes to educating ourselves and sharing what we learn. Trump is weaponizing ignorance; let’s weaponize knowledge. Keep calm and read on.

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